During his final two seasons in juniors, defenseman Simon Despres was one of the go-to guys on the power play, scoring eight goals while manning a point.
Now, Despres is developing into a go-to type of player yet again, but this time it doesn’t have anything to do with scoring points.
It’s all about preventing them.
This season, Despres’ time on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton power play has drastically diminished. It’s not that he did anything wrong, according to Penguins coach John Hynes, but rather the organization wants the former first round pick to add the role of shutdown defenseman to his game.
Such a component could be the final piece that jettisons Despres back to the NHL on a full-time basis.
“It’s about putting him in situations that are going to help him be a full-time NHL player, and right now it’s being a strong, shutdown defenseman,” Hynes said. “He’s making smart decisions, his game’s under control, he’s first over the boards for penalty kill and he’s matched against other team’s best players. It’s best for Simon’s game to be focused on those components right now, and he’s played well.”
For a player who had a strong offensive component to his game, Despres has taken to the defense-first role and embraced it. After 12 games this season Despres is second on the team with a plus-9. The last two seasons in the AHL he finished each with a minus-5.
What makes the plus-minus turnaround more remarkable is the fact that Despres has been regularly matched against the top point producing line in each game.
“I like that challenge,” Despres said. “I think I play better when the coaches give me a challenge to play against the first line.”
That goes for matching up against the first power-play unit as well. Throughout his career Despres has been no stranger to playing on special teams, just not the side that is down a man.
“I’m really enjoying being the first one out on penalty kill. It’s something I never had in my pro career and I want to be that go-to guy on the PK,” he said.
With the emphasis on defense this season, Despres has still managed to produce a healthy eight points in 12 games, exceeding the seven points he registered in 27 games last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The offensive side is something that will never disappear from Despres’ game, but the defensive improvement is sure to serve as a compliment.
“They know I can play the power play and if there’s an opportunity later in the year, maybe I’ll get a chance,” Despres said. “But right now I’m focusing on playing defense. It’s an aspect I wanted to work on.”
• C Nick Drazenovic is practicing in full this week and is expected to return to the lineup this weekend.